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Dante Alighieri (1265–1321).  The Divine Comedy.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Inferno [Hell]
 
Canto IX
 
 
ARGUMENT.—After some hindrances, and having seen the hellish furies and other monsters, the Poet, by the help of an angel, enters the city of Dis, wherein he discovers that the heretics are punished in tombs burning with intense fire; and he, together with Virgil, passes onward between the sepulchres and the walls of the city.
 
 
THE HUE, 1 which coward dread on my pale cheeks
Imprinted when I saw my guide turn back,
Chased that from his which newly they had worn,
And inwardly restrain’d it. He, as one
Who listens, stood attentive: for his eye        5
Not far could lead him through the sable air,
And the thick-gathering cloud. “It yet behoves
We win this fight;” thus he began: “if not,
Such aid to us is offer’d—Oh! how long
Me seems it, ere the promised help arrive.”        10
  I noted, how the sequel of his words
Cloked their beginning; for the last he spake
Agreed not with the first. But not the less
My fear was at his saying; sith I drew
To import worse, perchance, than that he held,        15
His mutilated speech. “Doth ever any
Into this rueful concave’s extreme depth
Descend, out of the first degree, whose pain
Is deprivation merely of sweet hope?”
  Thus I inquiring. “Rarely,” he replied,        20
“It chances, that among us any makes
This journey, which I wend. Erewhile, ’tis true,
Once came I here beneath, conjured by fell
Erichtho, 2 sorceress, who compell’d the shades
Back to their bodies. No long space my flesh        25
Was naked of me, when within these walls
She made me enter, to draw forth a spirit
From out of Judas’ circle. Lowest place
Is that of all, obscurest, and removed
Farthest from Heaven’s all-circling orb. The road        30
Full well I know: thou therefore rest secure.
That lake, the noisome stench exhaling, round
The city of grief encompasses, which now
We may not enter without rage, “Yet more
He added: but I hold it not in mind,        35
For that mine eye toward the lofty tower
Had drawn me wholly, to its burning top;
Where, in an instant, I beheld uprisen
At once three hellish furies stain’d with blood.
In limb and motion feminine they seem’d;        40
Around them greenest hydras twisting roll’d
Their volumes; adders and cerastes crept
Instead of hair, and their fierce temples bound.
  He, knowing well the miserable hags
Who tend the queen of endless owe, thus spake:        45
“Mark thou each dire Erynnis. To the left,
This is Megæra; on the right hand, she
Who wails, Alecto; and Tisiphone
I’ th’ midst.” This said, in silence he remain’d.
Their breast they each one clawing tore; themselves        50
Smote with their palms, and such thrill clamour raised,
That to the bard I clung, suspicion-bound.
“Hasten Medusa: so to adamant
Him shall we change;” all looking down exclaim’d:
“E’en when by Theseus’ might assail’d, we took        55
No ill revenge.” “Turn thyself round and keep
Thy countenance hid; for if the Gorgon dire
Be shown, and thou shouldst view it, thy return
Upwards would be forever lost.” This said,
Himself, my gentle master, turn’d me round;        60
Nor trusted he my hands, but with his own
He also hid me. Ye of intellect
Sound and entire, mark well the lore 3 conceal’d
Under close texture of the mystic strain.
  And now there came o’er the perturbed waves        65
Loud-crashing, terrible, a sound that made
Either shore tremble, as if of a wind
Impetuous, from conflicting vapors sprung,
That ’gainst some forest driving all his might,
Plucks off the branches, beats them down, and hurls        70
Afar; then, onward passing, proudly sweeps
His whirlwind rage, while beasts and shepherds fly.
  Mine eyes he loosed, and spake: “And now direct
Thy visual nerve along that ancient foam,
There, thickest where the smoke ascends.” As frogs        75
Before their foe the serpent, through the wave
Ply swiftly all, till at the ground each one
Lies on a heap; more than a thousand spirits
Destroy’d, so saw I fleeing before one
Who pass’d with unwet feet the Stygian sound.        80
He, from his face removing the gross air,
Oft his left hand forth stretch’d, and seem’d alone
By that annoyance wearied. I perceived
That he was sent from Heaven; and to my guide
Turn’d me, who signal made, that I should stand        85
Quiet, and bend to him. Ah me! how full
Of noble anger seem’d he. To the gate
He came, and with his wand touch’d it, whereat
Open without impediment it flew.
  “Outcasts of heaven! O abject race, scorn’d!”        90
Began he, on the horrid grunsel standing,
“Whence doth this wild excess of insolence
Lodge in you? wherefore kick you ’gainst that will
Ne’er frustrate of its end, and which so oft
Hath laid on you enforcement of your pangs?        95
What profits at the Fates to butt the horn?
Your Cerberus, 4 if ye remember, hence
Bears still, peel’d of their hair, his throat and maw.”
  This said, he turn’d back o’er the filthy way,
And syllable to us spake none; but wore        100
The semblance of a man by other care
Beset, and keenly prest, than thought of him
Who in his presence stands. Then we our steps
Toward that territory moved, secure
After the hallow’d words. We, unopposed,        105
There enter’d; and, my mind eager to learn
What state a fortress like to that might hold,
I, soon as enter’d, throw mine eye around,
And see, on every part, wide-stretching space,
Replete with bitter pain and torment ill.        110
  As where Rhone stagnates on the plains of Arles, 5
Or as at Pola, 6 near Quarnaro’s gulf,
That closes Italy and laves her bounds,
The place is all thick spread with sepulchres;
So was it here, save what in horror here        115
Excell’d: for ’midst the graves were scattered flames,
Wherewith intensely all throughout they burn’d,
That iron for no craft there hotter needs.
  Their lids all hung suspended; and beneath,
From them forth issued lamentable moans,        120
Such as the sad and tortured well might raise.
  I thus: “Master! say who are these, interr’d
Within these vaults, of whom distinct we hear
The dolorous sighs.” He answer thus return’d:
“The arch-heretics are here, accompanied        125
By every sect their followers; and much more
Than thou believest, the tombs are freighted: like
With like is buried; and the monuments
Are different in degrees of heat.” This said,
He to the right hand turning, on we pass’d        130
Betwixt the afflicted and the ramparts high.
 
Note 1. “The hue,” Virgil, perceiving that Dante was pale with fear, restrained those outward tokens of displeasure which his own countenance had betrayed. [back]
Note 2. Erichtho, a Thessalian sorceress (Lucan, “Pharsal.” 1. vi.), was employed by Sextus, son of Pompey the Great, to conjure up a spirit, who should inform him of the issue of the civil wars between his father and Cæsar. [back]
Note 3. The Poet probably intends to call the reader’s attention to the allegorical and mystic sense of the present Canto, and not, as Venturi supposes, to that of the whole work. Landino supposes this hidden meaning to be that in the case of those vices which proceed from intemperance, reason, figured under the person of Virgil, with the ordinary grace of God, may be a sufficient safeguard; but that in the instance of more heinous crimes, such as those we shall hereafter see punished, a special grace, represented by the angel, is requisite for our defence [back]
Note 4. “Your Cerberus.” Cerberus is feigned to have been dragged by Hercules, bound with a threefold chain, of which, says the angel, he still bears the marks. Lombardi blames the other interpreters for having supposed that the angel attributes this exploit to Hercules, a fabulous hero, rather than to our Saviour, It would seem as if the good father had forgotten that Cerberus is himself no less a creature of the imagination than the hero who encountered him. [back]
Note 5. “The plains of Arles.” In Provence. These sepulchres are mentioned in the Life of Charlemagne, which has been attributed to Archbishop Turpin, cap. 28, and 30, and by Fazio degli Uberti, Dittamondo, L. iv. cap. xxi. [back]
Note 6. “At Pola.” A city of Istria, situated near the gulf of Quarnaro, in the Adriatic Sea  [back]
 

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